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What does the Tory Trade Union Act mean for trade unionism?

This article is over 7 years, 2 months old
As the Trade Union Act comes into force, Sadie Robinson looks at the barriers that aim to stop workers striking—and why the Tories want them
Issue 2544
Some 100,000 protested against Tory attacks in 2015
Some 100,000 protested against Tory attacks in 2015 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The Tory Trade Union Act is now in force. It aims to discourage union leaders from balloting for strikes by adding more bureaucratic hoops and making it easier to deem ballots “illegal”.

Previously a strike vote was valid if a majority voted yes in a ballot. Now at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote must vote.

For some the thresholds are even tougher. If workers who usually provide “important public services” are balloted, at least 40 percent of those eligible to vote must vote yes.

So in a workplace with 100 union members, at least 50 would have to vote and at least 40 must vote yes.

The rule affects public sector workers in health, education, the fire service, transport, border security and nuclear decommissioning. But it doesn’t apply to all of them.

For instance, not all nurses and doctors are affected by the 40 percent requirement. It doesn’t cover all ambulance workers either.

Ambulance workers who are responding to calls made to an emergency number will be affected by the rule. In hospitals workers in A&E, high-dependency units and intensive care will be hit.

Workers in psychiatric, obstetric and maternity services are covered if their services are needed to prevent serious injury, serious illness or loss of life.

In the fire service the rule covers workers who do work necessary to extinguish fires and protect life and property. It covers bus services—but only in London.


In schools the 40 percent requirement affects staff working with people aged under 17, except in fee-paying schools.

The International Labour Organisation views “essential services” as those that are necessary to protect life, personal safety and health.

But employment law specialist Sarah Hooton said the government’s focus was different.

It “appears to be much more on the significance of the economic impact that any strikes could have on members of the public”.

This gives the lie to the idea that public sector strikes have no impact. The government itself admits this is not the case.

Its Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) last year said the 50 percent threshold would bring the “main monetised benefit” of the Act.

The Tories estimate this will cut working days “lost” by 35 percent in important public services and by 29 percent in other sectors.

The RPC said, “The benefit to businesses and public sector employers is estimated at £12.6 million each year. The overall benefit of the proposals is £108.4 million over ten years in present value terms.”

The Act aims to stop picketing

The Act aims to put strikers off picketing. Unions must appoint a picket supervisor. This person or their union must give the cops their name and contact details, and information about where picketing will take place.

The union must give the supervisor a letter approving the picketing. If a boss asks to see the letter, it must be shown “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

The supervisor must be present where picketing is taking place or be readily contactable and “able to attend at short notice”. They must wear something that identifies them as the supervisor.

Previously a non-binding code of practice included “advice” on picketing. The Act has introduced statutory obligations.

The Tories are targeting picketing because they know it makes strikes more effective. Workers must defy these anti-union laws and demand their unions resist them.

The government threatened to lift restrictions on bosses using agency staff as scabs during strikes. But this hasn’t happened yet—the Tories can still be stopped.

New powers for enforcers

The Act brings in a range of rules designed to trip unions up, rule out ballots and make it harder to hold effective strikes.

Unions must give bosses two weeks’ notice before taking action—double the previous amount.

They have to give more information on voting papers. This includes specifying the type of action that will be taken and indicating when action would take place.

Unions must provide the Certification Officer (CO) with details of industrial action taken in their annual returns.

They must also provide a detailed breakdown of “political expenditure” where it exceeds £2,000 in any calendar year.

This includes naming political parties and organisations that received money and the total amounts paid.

The CO can now launch an investigation over whether a union has complied with ballot rules even where no challenge is made.

It has new powers to impose fines on unions of up to £20,000.

And the government can “amend” this “by substituting a different amount” at some point in the future.

No political voice for your union – unless you opt in

The new laws undermine unions’ political funds.

Previously unions had to make clear that workers could opt out of the political fund.

Now, it is “unlawful” to require members to contribute to the fund if they have not opted in.

More threats to workplace organisation

The Act says public sector bosses could be required to publish information on facility time.

Union reps have a right to represent their members and it costs bosses very little.

But the Act says that the government may restrict “rights of relevant union officials to facility time” if the “costs to public funds” are too high.

Paying through the nose for a kick in the teeth

The costs of the Act “will fall primarily on trade unions” the Regulatory Policy Committee said.

The Tories estimate that total costs will hit unions for £5.3 million.

Reporting political expenditure will cost unions another £100,000 each year.

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